Best Sellars

Although acted-out versions of Bach’s passions and cantatas are hardly unprecedented – even the Metropolitan Opera staged one of the secular cantatas (No. 201) as long ago as 1942 – the possibilities are just beginning to be explored. As a director long fascinated by the formal structure and dramatic rituals of Baroque music drama, Peter Sellars was bound to get around to Bach sooner or later, and after some preliminary experiments he has dreamed up a project that has already started a few arguments: a pairing of two solo Bach Cantatas, Nos. 199 and 82, which were recently performed at the John Jay College Theater by mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music, Craig Smith conducting, the latest event in Lincoln Center’s “New Vision” series.

Both scores – the texts as well as Bach’s intense musical response to them – are riddled with references to death and dying. Sellars goes even further, suggesting that these works are “about the extremes in your life, the dark places, the strange places, everything you’re not sure of, everything you are wrestling with.” Specifically, he feels that Cantata No. 199 (“My Heart Swims in Blood”) deals with suicide, while No. 82 (“It Is Enough”) focuses on the last half-hour of someone’s life and what it means to die well. Perhaps he’s right, although I doubt that Bach expected listeners to take the anguished verbal symbolism quite so literally. With their strong language of guilt, self-abasement, and physical pain, these unsettling pieces were hardly intended as comforting strokes for a Sunday-morning congregation, but the verbal imagery here is strictly one of soul-to-God. Beyond that, suicide is not an option in Lutheran doctrine.

That said, it is impossible not to be swept up in Sellars’s vision and be profoundly moved by it. And it is equally impossible to imagine another singer communicating its emotions more powerfully than Hunt Lieberson. In Cantata 199, she is the personification of tortured grief, moving with the eloquence of a great dancer and using the drapery of her costume as though it were a vale of her own tears. As the terminal patient in Cantata 82, in a hospital gown and tubes, she managed to turn a potentially awkward situation into sheer poetry with confidence, commitment, and grace. Not only is Sellars’s choreography visually exquisite in itself, but the movements uncannily reflect, reinforce, and interpret the rhythms and structural design of Bach’s music. I know of no opera director more innately musical than Sellars, none more sensitized or responsive to the compositional realities of a score, and few who work more effectively with singers to make them look so striking onstage.

Musically the performances were even more heartstopping. Hunt Lieberson sings from the very center of her being with a voice of ravishing liquidity that responds instantly to every expressive gesture. All this came together in the hushed aria “Schlummert ein” to create one of those magical moments when it seems as though an entire audience forgets to breathe. Like Hunt Lieberson, Craig Smith is a longstanding Sellars colleague, whose knowledge of Bach style comes from many years of studying and performing the cantatas at Boston’s Emmanuel Church. Collaborative efforts do not reach the stage more superbly prepared or closely unified than this.

“Bach Cantatas” was a rare outing for Sellars in New York City, where he has yet to stage a high-profile production with a major company despite numerous discussions over the years. For those of us who value his work, the lost opportunities have been sad, especially a boldly conceived Il Trovatore at the City Opera that I hope he can realize somewhere one day, and several Met projects that never got off the drawing board – even Tommy Tune’s Gershwin musical My One and Only started out as a Sellars project. Perhaps the success of “Bach Cantatas” will start our opera companies thinking again.

If it weren’t for the fact that these things are planned years in advance, one might guess the Metropolitan Opera’s conservative new production of Verdi’s first hit, Nabucco, was consciously intended to placate all those offended by the company’s recent experimental Trovatore. The going fashion for Nabucco in Europe, Germany particularly, is to reinterpret this biblical spectacle about King Nebuchadnezzar and the captive Jews as a cautionary tale of World War II. Director Elijah Moshinsky and set designer John Napier will have none of that. We are safely in an operatic Babylon, with colorful depictions of the Temple of Solomon, the Hanging Gardens, and Nabucco’s royal quarters all heaped on a huge revolve. Moshinsky is content to direct characters rather than ideas, and even in this rather blunt melodrama he manages to find and effectively convey the actions of flawed humanity that always concerned Verdi, even at this early stage in his career.

The role of Abigaille, the evil eldest daughter of Nabucco, is a killer – it even defeated the Met’s only Abigaille until now, the great Leonie Rysanek, who gamely sang all fourteen performances of a short-lived production back in the 1960-61 season. While sometimes bowed, Maria Guleghina is never beaten by these energy-charged vocal lines, music that requires a soprano as skillful at handling agile coloratura as she is with forceful declamation. If a top note occasionally goes haywire or a passage of soft singing curdles, Guleghina’s fearless, even reckless account of this impossible role is surely the best we can hope for in the here and now.

Otherwise, the Met chorus is the star of the show – “Va, pensiero,” the opera’s most famous excerpt, was even encored on opening night – and the set’s forward thrust is cleverly designed to project massed voices directly into the audience. I suppose it’s pointless to complain that Juan Pons (Nabucco) and Samuel Ramey (Zaccaria) sound very generic and never define these fanatical polar opposites, especially since the audience seems genuinely satisfied. At least James Levine prods the score vigorously from the orchestra pit, giving Verdi’s youthful inspiration precisely the melodic shape and rhythmic impetus it needs.

Bach Cantatas
Staged by Peter Sellars with soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
Metropolitan Opera production of the Verdi opera, conducted by James Levine, staged by Elijah Moshinsky, starring soprano Maria Guleghina.

Best Sellars